The Monastic Trappist Beers

If you thought that Trappist was the name of a star system supporting seven Earth sized exoplanets about 40 light years away from us, then you probably don’t know that the researchers who named it were inspired by their favourite beer. Such is the exclusivity and the special nature of the Trappist beer that of the thousands of beers produced in the world today, only 11 of them are allowed to be labelled as Trappist Beers. Six of these are made in Belgium, one in the United States, two in Holland, one in Italy and one in Austria.

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For a beer to be called as a Trappist beer,

  • It must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery, either by the monks themselves or under their supervision,
  • The brewery must be of second importance in the monastery, and it should be witness to the business practices proper to a monastic way of life, and
  • The brewery should not be intended to be a profit generating venture. The income from the brewery would be used to cover the expenses of the monks, the maintenance of the buildings and grounds , and whatever remains would be donated to charity for social work and to help persons in need.

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Monks who go by the name of Trappists are from the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, a branch of Roman Catholicism. Beer is one of the indulgences that monks are permitted, and that’s one of the reasons they know how to brew special beers so incredibly well. The designation ‘Trappist’ is a legal one and encompasses a range of styles rather than a single one. Most of these Abbery interiors are typically cloistered and off limits to visitors. Many of the Trappist breweries are off limit to the public as well.

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A Trappist Monastery

The Trappist order originated in the Cistercian monastery of La Trappe, France. Various Cistercian congregations existed for many years and by 1664 the Abbot of La Trappe felt that the Cistercians were becoming too liberal. He introduced strict new rules in the abbey and the Strict Observance was born. Since this time, many of the rules have been relaxed. However, a fundamental tenet that monasteries should be self-supporting is still maintained by these groups.

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Monastery brewhouses from different religious sects have existed all across Europe since the Middle Ages. From the very beginning, beer was brewed in French Cistercian monasteries following the Strict Observance. For example, the monastery of La Trappe in Soligny already had its own brewery in 1685. Breweries were later introduced in monasteries of other countries as the Trappist order spread from France into the rest of Europe. The Trappists, like many other religious orders, originally brewed beer to feed the community in a perspective of self-sufficiency. Nowadays, Trappists also brew beer to fund their works and charitable causes. Many of the Trappist monasteries were destroyed in the French Revolution and the World Wars. In the last 300 years, there were at least 9 Trappist breweries in France, six in Belgium, two in Netherlands, one in Germany, one in Austria, one in Bosnia and possibly in other countries as well. Of these, today only 11 are active. In the twentieth century, the growing popularity of Trappist beers led some brewers with no connection to the order to label their beers as Trappist. After unsuccessful trials, monks sued one such brewer in 1962 in Ghent, Belgium.

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In 1997, eight Trappist abbeys – six from Belgium, one from Netherlands and one from Germany founded the International Trappist Association to prevent non-Trappist commercial companies from abusing the Trappist name. This association created a logo that is assigned to goods (cheese, beer, wine, etc) that meet the precise production criteria. The association has a legal standing and its logo gives the consumers some information. The Trappist breweries are constantly monitored to ensure irreproachable quality of its beers.

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Trappist beers are mostly top fermented and mainly bottle conditioned. Various systems of nomenclatures are used for different beers produced which relate to their relative strength. The best known is the system where different beers are called Enkel/Single, Dubbel/Double and Tripel/Triple. These terms roughly describe both the amount of malt and the original gravity. Enkels are no longer produced as such.

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‘Patersbier’ or ‘Father’s Beer’ is also served in most Trappist breweries but is available only within the monastery. This variety is designed to be consumed mostly by the monks themselves, although sometimes it gets offered at the monastery’s on-site cafe. It is usually a weaker version of the regular beers and may only be offered to the brothers on festive occasions, both of these relating to the Trappist tradition of austerity.

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Belgian Trappist breweries have a tradition of providing custom beer glasses, which often takes the form of providing chalice or goblet style glasses. (Note: The distinction between a goblet and a chalice is typically in the thickness of the glass. Goblets tend to be more delicate and thin, while the chalice is heavy and thick walled. Some chalices are etched on the bottom to nucleate a stream of bubbles for maintaining a nice head.

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The idea of visiting Trappist monasteries to sample their beers has become more popular in recent years, partly due to promotion by enthusiasts such as beer hunter Michael Jackson. Some brewing monasteries maintain a visitors’ centre where their beers can be tasted and bought, sometimes with other monastic products such as bread and cheese. Visits to the monasteries itself are not usually available to the general public although visitors can overnight in some of the monasteries if their purpose is non-touristic.

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16 Comments Add yours

  1. dorothyadele says:

    I enjoyed this post, and I had no idea that Trappist Monks brew beer to cover their costs. Do you know where they brew it in the U.S.?

    1. forktrails says:

      Thanks. They are brewed at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts

      1. dorothyadele says:

        Thank you for your response, great post.

  2. Denny George says:

    I had the chance to taste some Trappist beer while on a visit to Salzburg, Austria. It made me happy to see the brand, Gregorius, in the line up of beers you have in one of the pictures. Thank you.

  3. Sylvia says:

    Although I’m from Belgium I’m not a big trappist fan. But your article was quite interesting to read. I learnt a lot. Thanks

  4. Ella says:

    Such interesting history behind Trappist beer. I’ve never tried it myself but this article has sure made me curious to whenever I get the chance 🙂

    1. forktrails says:

      Thanks Ella

  5. jcmatt says:

    Haven’t had a Trappist beer in a long time. Definitely not for everyday drinking.

    1. forktrails says:

      Its a delight for sure

  6. Jim Jones says:

    I’ve tried several Belgian Trappist beers…they are awesome! I didn’t know the back-story on the rules for creating stuff like this in the monasteries – thanks for the insights!

  7. twobytour says:

    Great explanation of Trappist beers. The Belgian style as a whole is a favorite of ours, and we love a good, funky, bottle-conditioned beer.

  8. Chad says:

    I feel like I’ve learned a lot about trappist beer from this post! I appreciate the historical details that you added for our enjoyment 🙂

    1. forktrails says:

      Thanks Chad

  9. I am such a beer fanatic that this post was so interesting, I never knew all those things about the monks brewing the beer.

    1. forktrails says:

      I am so glad you liked it. Thanks much!

  10. bhavipatel says:

    Reblogged this on blackbeautyandme.

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